Democratic Wave in Congress Further Erodes Moderation in GOP

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 7, 2006

Iowa Rep. Jim Leach (R) seemed a natural to weather voters' antiwar sentiment this fall. His independent streak and moderate views had engendered the allegiance of his Democratic-leaning district for the past 30 years, and he broke with his party and President Bush in October 2002 by voting against the Iraq war.

Yet on Election Day, voters in Iowa's 2nd Congressional District ousted him in favor of an untested Democrat, a college professor -- a testament to the vulnerable position that Republican moderates found themselves in all year. Voters in Leach's district said that they respected him but that his party affiliation kept them from voting for him this year.

"He's a good guy, and he has integrity, and I think he has done a great job -- but he's still a Republican," said Jeremy Jackson, an Iowa City novelist.

With the defeat of Leach and several other Republican moderates Nov. 7, the Democrats' victory in the midterm election accelerates a three-decade-old pattern of declining moderate influence and rising conservative dominance in the Republican Party. By one measure, the GOP is more ideologically homogenous now than it has been in modern history. The waning moderate wing must find its place when the Democratic majority takes over in January.

"The irony of this election is that the public, in seeking change, has . . . weakened the center," Leach said recently. "In a sense, what has occurred is the strengthening of the edges of the parties."

Eight of the House's 20 most moderate Republicans lost their seats: Rob Simmons and Nancy L. Johnson (Conn.); Jeb Bradley and Charles Bass (N.H.); Michael G. Fitzpatrick and Curt Weldon (Pa.); Sue W. Kelly (N.Y.); and Leach. Also, moderate GOP Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (N.Y.), is retiring, and he will be replaced by Democrat Michael A. Arcuri, the Oneida County district attorney.

On the Senate side, the defeat of Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.), a critic of the war who declined to vote for Bush's reelection in 2004, underscored the same trend.

By one measure, the 110th Congress will have the fewest moderates since the 19th century. This finding is based on an analysis of voting records by Keith T. Poole, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, and Howard Rosenthal, a New York University politics professor.

For the purpose of the study, a moderate is defined as someone whose votes consistently fall near the middle of the political spectrum on both fiscal and social issues.

The decline in moderates has had a greater impact on Republicans than Democrats. According to Poole's calculations, almost half of House Republicans were moderates 30 years ago, compared to well under 10 percent today. The professors argue that the decline of moderates in Congress has increased polarization.

To some moderate Republicans, the message of the Nov. 7 election was clear: The only path back to the majority is through the political center. With a small and shrinking membership, however, it is unclear whether the moderate wing will have much influence over the future direction of the GOP.

"There's a faction in the Republican conference that believes we lost the majority because we were never fiscally conservative enough, we were not socially conservative enough," Bass said. Indeed, over the last 12 years, the increasing conservative dominance in the GOP has mirrored growing Republican dominance in Washington -- first in Congress, then the White House.

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